Washington — Is a lightning bolt about to hit the Weather Service? The Reagan administration, complaining that the federal government subsidizes many industries with free, specialized weather forecasts, is studying ways the US Weather Service might be slimmed and modernized.
Administration officials say they just want to tone up a venerable agency. But many meteorologists - pointing to developments such as a proposal to sell all US weather satellites to private industry - are very uneasy about the White House actions.
''I fear the administration will make simple ideological decisions, without concern for their effect on the quality of weather data available,'' says a former top Weather Service official.
Weather prediction is traditionally not a hot political topic in Washington. A centralized weather bureau wasn't even practical until the middle of the 19th century, when the advent of the telegraph enabled the Smithsonian Institution to begin collecting weather data from around the country for public display on a daily weather map.
Today, the National Weather Service, a branch of the Department of Commerce, spends $300 million a year on weather forecasting. Add in the cost of operating weather satellites, and some miscellaneous services, and the federal government now spends over $1 billion a year on weather research.
''We have developed one of the strongest weather services in the world,'' says Louis Battan, a University of Arizona meteorologist and former member of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere (NACOA). ''Over the last 10 years, violent weather deaths have gone way down.'' More accurate forecasts now save farmers an estimated $750 million a year in production costs.
Last year, NACOA finished a two-year study into the future of US weather services. Among other things, the semiofficial advisory group concluded that the Weather Service needed $1 billion over the next 10 years to purchase such advanced technology as sensitive Doppler radars.
But weather prediction, like other nondefense, nonentitlement government programs, has had its budget snipped by the Reagan administration. The National Weather Service proposed '84 budget, without adjusting for inflation, represents a 10 percent cut from 1982 funding levels.
And now many meteorologists are concerned about the White House's further plans for weather programs.
The administration has paid $235,000 to Booz, Allen, & Hamilton, a management consulting firm, for a study on how the National Weather Service might be restructured to meet the needs of the next century.
According to a Commerce Department official, the study will specify areas where automation, centralization, or the use of outside contractors might pare significant sums from the Weather Service budget. It will also examine what the federal government's proper role is in weather prediction.
''To what extent should the Weather Service provide services to specific users, such as fruit frost warnings to citrus growers?'' asks Jack LaCovey, a spokesman for the Commerce Department's oceans and atmosphere branch.
Most meteorologists outside the government admit that the Weather Service, in essence, subsidizes some industries with custom-tailored forecasts.
But many say that the Booz, Allen study is being conducted because the administration didn't like NACOA's recommendations, and is seeking justification for further budget cuts of at least 15 percent.
''I think (the budget cuts) have already gone too far,'' says Thomas Malone, a Butler University meteorologist. Further cuts ''will seriously impair the agency's ability to do its job.''
To justify their worries, scientists point to another move being considered by the White House - selling off the four US weather satellites to private industry.
Presidential science adviser George Keyworth confirms such a move is being studied, ''mostly because the private sector will do a better job in marketing the product.''
A COMSAT Inc. proposal estimates the move would save the government $1.2 billion over 10 years.
But congressional sources claim that, since the government would have to buy back data from the private owners, it would actually cost $800 million extra over the next decade to sell the weather satellites.
While selling the land-sensing (LANDSAT) satellites might make sense, say these sources, peddling their weather brothers doesn't.
''There is no private market. The government would have to buy 95 percent of the data,'' says an aide to Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, who has introduced a bill that would require congressional approval of such a sale.
A satellite garage sale also raises issues of international relations, says a House aide, since the US now routinely exchanges satellite weather information with many other countries, at no charge.